Tag Archives: Richard Linklater

235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)

“I think it was probably the strangest script I ever read.”–Robert Downey Jr.

“I was very confused by the script at first, it’s a bizarre kind of story…”–Woody Harrelson



FEATURING: , , Rory Cochrane

PLOT: In the near future, an estimated twenty percent of the American population is addicted to a drug called “Substance D.” “Fred,” an undercover agent, is posing as Bob Arctor, hanging out with a small-time group of users, hoping to locate a high level supplier. Fred, who is becoming more and more addicted to substance D and is being watched closely by police psychologists concerned about possible brain damage, grows increasingly paranoid, especially when one of Arctor’s roommates goes to the police and accuses the plant of being a terrorist.

Still from A Scanner Darkly (2006)


  • Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a fascinatingly weird figure, a counterculture science fiction author and the man responsible for the stories that were adapted into movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, and others. He was also a heavy user of amphetamines (and, some say, LSD) in his youth; in his later years he became paranoid, and may in fact have been living with some form of mental illness. In 1974, after taking sodium pentothal for an impacted wisdom tooth, Dick began seeing visions involving pink beams of light, the sense of having lived a previous life as a persecuted Christian in the Roman era, and communication from a super-rational intelligence he dubbed “VALIS.” To Dick’s credit, he never surrendered to these delusions altogether; he remained rational enough to write coherent (if paranoid) novels.
  • Dick’s novel “A Scanner Darkly” was written in 1977 and set in 1992. It was based on the author’s own experiences as a drug addict, and was dedicated to casualties of drug abuse (the author’s roll call of those “punished entirely too much for what they did” is included before the movie’s end credits).
  • wrote an unproduced adaptation of “A Scanner Darkly,” and  was also reportedly interested in the property.
  • The animation technique used here is rotoscoping, where actual footage is filmed and then “painted” over by animators (in this case, with the aid of computer software, although in the earliest days of the technique a team of artists would hand-paint each individual frame of film).
  • Filmed in a brisk 23 days, but post-production (i.e. the rotoscope animation) took 18 painstaking months to complete.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “scramble suit,” the undercover cloaking device of the future which is “made up of a million and a half fractional representations of men, women and children.” These “fractional representations” flicker across the surface of the suit, masking the the wearer’s identity by changing him into a “vague blur” of constantly shifting identities. The effect is eerie and disorienting, but unforgettable.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Aphids everywhere; scrambled identities; alien presiding at a suicide

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A Scanner Darkly is a paranoid, dystopian meditation on self-destruction—both personal and social—told as a sci-fi parable about an addictive, mind-rotting hallucinogen. For extra weirdness, the entire movie is rotoscoped to create a squirmy, synthetic reality.

Original trailer for A Scanner Darkly

COMMENTS: Hollywood has long been attracted to the works of Continue reading 235. A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)




FEATURING: The citizens of Austin, Texas

PLOT: Slacker spies on the aimless exploits of the slackers of Austin, TX; the camera follows one character for a few minutes, then veers off to chase another through a series of comical, philosophical, and absurd vignettes involving hit-and-run drivers, elderly anarchists and video fetishists.

Still from Slacker (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Slacker is a seminal, interesting, and at times incisive storytelling experiment, but it’s of interest to weirdophiles mainly as the spiritual prequel to Waking Life, which is virtually Slacker remade as a dream.

COMMENTS: The batty cast list—credited characters include “Dostoevsky Wannabe,” “Recluse in Bathrobe” and “Hit Up for Cigarettes”—accurately reflects the mix of mundanity and eccentricity on display in writer/director Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life tour of the coffee shops and crash-pads and on the fringes of Austin, Texas in 1991. Slacker is a character study of the subculture of bright but unambitious dropouts and unemployed postgrads bent on extending their undergrad lifestyles that exists in every college town. At the time of its release it was seen as emblematic of “Generation X”‘s alienation and withdrawal from mainstream culture, but in reality this Bohemian substrata of unmotivated aesthetes and anti-establishment hedonists has always been with us under various names (if the movie had been made in 1291 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence it would have been entitled Goliard). For this peripatetic essay Linklater borrows the elegant but seldom used narrative device invented by Luis Buñuel for The Phantom of Liberty: two characters walk down the street discussing whether they should leave the country, then the cameraman suddenly gets bored and starts following a man who enters a coffee shop where an insane woman advises him that he should “never traumatize a woman sexually,” then decides instead to see where the guy who just entered the shop wearing a bathrobe is headed to, and so on. The result is a series of vignettes which are occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing, and often repetitive, but which capture a peculiar, laid-back, mad energy of a particular place at a particular point in time. Still, as the film’s oldest character rhapsodizes when remembering Charles Whitman, “this town has always had its share of crazies—I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Memorable characters range from the UFO enthusiast who accosts passersby to explain his theory that we’ve been on the moon since the 1950s to the tomboy who’s looking to fence stolen celebrity gynecology artifacts, cheap. Linklater, who delivers the first of the film’s many discursive monologues himself in the role of “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Stop,” shows an attitude of fond disdain for a town where everyone sleeps in late and is working on an unfinished novel or playing in an unsigned band. The director may have arisen out of the Austin milieu, but if he’s a slacker, then he’s a type-A personality slacker; he’s obviously a much harder worker than the guy who earnestly muses “who’s ever written a great work about the tremendous effort required not to create?” over a cup of cappuccino.

If Slacker has one downside (besides excusably spotty acting by the amateur cast), it’s that the movie turns repetitive and arguably outstays its welcome. Somewhere between twenty and forty-five minutes in we start to get the picture; although the UFO guy and the JFK guy have totally different obsessions, ultimately they’re both just proselytizers with a passion for explaining stuff we don’t care about to us in ridiculous detail. The overall portrait Linklater manages to paint is still very impressive; Slacker may be the most passionate and invigorating movie about doing nothing ever made.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see Slacker in Austin, TX in 1991 in a theater in a strip mall (I lived in Dallas at the time but had a friend attending UT with a couch I could crash on). The movie, which was playing nowhere else in the country, had been held over for a second week, and the afternoon matinee showing was standing room only; everyone in the audience but me probably had a friend or two who was an extra in it. I had an aisle seat; a middle-aged woman came in late and stood next to me during the entire show, shooting me nasty looks as she shifted from foot to foot. I recall thinking it ironic that the Austinite had to stand through the whole performance simply because she had slacked off on getting to the show on time.


“…funny, surreal and weird… Linklater traces the dehumanized weirding of America — as collectively defined by David Lynch, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch and others. But he does it with a detached, yet sympathetic sense of irony.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who suggested that all of Linklater’s films were “pretty weird and deep with one or two exceptions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

45. WAKING LIFE (2001)

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“Sanity is a madness put to good uses; waking life is a dream controlled.”–George Santayana, Interpretations of Poetry and Religion

DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

FEATURING: Wiley Wiggins, , Julie Delphy

PLOT:  An unnamed young man appears to be drifting from dream to dream, each animated in a different style. His dreams involve him talking to various college professors who explain their theories on existentialism, artificial intelligence and free will, as well as more typical dreamlike experiences such as floating away and taking a ride in a boat-car. About halfway through the film it slowly dawns on the dreamer that he is dreaming, and he begins to ask the characters he meets for help waking up.

Still from Waking Life (2001)


  • The film was shot on mini-DV video over a period of six weeks. Each frame was then painstakingly hand-drawn by a team of animators using computer software specifically adapted for this film (a 21st century update of the process known as Rotoscoping).
  • Each minute of film took an average of 250 hours to create.
  • Featured actor Wiley Wiggins also worked as one of the animators.
  • The monologues on existentialism and free will were delivered by Robert C. Solomon and David Sosa, respectively, two philosophy professors from the University of Texas.
  • Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy play the same characters in their short scene as they did in Linklater’s earlier film, Before Sunrise.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film where thirty different animators each put their own distinctive stamp on the characters, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if thirty different people came up with thirty different answers to the question, “what was your favorite image in Waking Life?” We’ll suggest that final shot of the dreamer floating into the heavens is the obvious take-home image to bring to mind when you remember the movie, however.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though Waking Life is a string of vignettes of varying levels of oddness, it’s the animation—which shifts from style to style, with the only constant being the fact that the backgrounds continually shift and waver in a state of eternal flux—that keeps it weird. The concept—that the entire film is a dream from which the unnamed protagonist can’t seem to awake—promises an exemplary level of surreality. In fact, many of the segments are, on their face, completely ordinary: cogent explanations of sometimes difficult, sometimes speculative philosophical concepts. The fact that these heady but decidedly rational ideas are explored in the context of the supposedly irrational world of dreams, might, in itself, be considered just a little bit weird.

Original trailer for Waking Life

COMMENTS: There are at least two ways to conclude Waking Life is an unconditional Continue reading 45. WAKING LIFE (2001)